Executive Development Blog

Making Sense of Workplace Assessments

Posted by UNC Executive Development on Apr 7, 2016 11:51:34 AM


Assessments in the workplaceIt is nearly impossible these days to find an employee who hasn’t taken a personality or competence assessment at some point in his or her career. It is estimated that as many as 60 percent of employees undergo workplace assessments a year. Assessments are used at nearly every phase of the employment relationship, from hiring, to training and development, and to succession planning.

Assessments Are Big Business
According to Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based research firm, organizations use assessments to screen potential employees, to hire, and to identify high-potential employees, noting that well-designed and executed assessment programs can elevate HR’s position as a strategic partner in their organizations . Employers also use assessments to motivate employees, to improve team work, to enhance leadership development, and to aid in succession planning.

Simply put, good assessments can help place the right people in the right roles, lowering turnover and increasing employee loyalty. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems and professor of business psychology at University College London, notes that valid assessments help employers measure three elements critical to success on the job: competence, work ethic, and emotional intelligence. Work ethic, he writes, includes ambition, reliability, and trustworthiness. Emotional intelligence is linked to job performance, entrepreneurial potential, and leadership talent. Assessments also help prevent employers from “hiring from the gut” by providing real data about prospective employees.

Caveats to Consider
Assessments can be a powerful tool in an organization’s talent management arsenal, but there are two important caveats to consider. First, as Jac Fitz-enz, CEO of Human Capital Source, writes in an article for Human Resource Executive Online, assessment reviewers must focus on the data and not skew it to conform to their own predispositions.

Secondly, consider the words of Carl Jung, a pioneer in the field of psychiatry whose theories are the basis of the widely-used Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (MBTI):

Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. Despite this, it figures in the theory as an unassailable fundamental fact….If, for instance, I determine the weight of each stone in a bed of pebbles and get an average weight of 145 grams, this tells me very little about the real nature of the pebbles. Anyone who thought, on the basis of these findings, that he could pick up a pebble of 145 grams at the first try would be in for a serious disappointment. Indeed, it might well happen that however long he searched, he would not find a single pebble weighing exactly 145 grams. The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way (The Undiscovered Self, p. 6).

mbti.jpgIn other words, keep in mind that assessments reflect the “ideal average.” The MBTI, for example, uses 16 “buckets” of personality types based on Jung’s work and was developed to help test takers understand that people do not all think and feel the same way. If presented the wrong way, however, it runs the risk of pigeon-holing people into the “ideal average” of whichever category they fall into based on their assessment results. If organizations use personality assessments to identify employee preferences, it is important that they use the “buckets” the person falls into as a starting point for a conversation about preferences versus taking the data as the actual truth—because it can falsify the actual truth. This is a golden rule that professional coaches know and understand, but that business managers and leaders can miss and therefore misunderstand the needs of the individual.

Types of Assessments
There are so many assessment types and tools on the market that a few employers throw their hands up and opt not to use any assessments. When used correctly, however, assessments can help lower employee turnover and improve morale and productivity, all of which translates into improving the employers’ bottom line performance.

Organizations considering introducing assessments in their organizations must understand the types of assessments available, what they assess, and how they can be applied in the workplace.

Assessments generally fall into two broad categories; assessments for competence and behavioral assessments. Competence assessments assess experience, knowledge, skills, and cognitive abilities like memory recall and high-level thinking skills. Behavioral assessments assess behavior like how well a person manages self, change, and priorities, and how well a person works with others. Behavioral assessments can also try to uncover behavior that is driven by value systems, attitude, and beliefs. Competence and behavioral assessments go by many different names, and this is where confusion may come into play.

Assessments for Competence
Assessments for competence include cognitive ability assessments that assess mental abilities like verbal, math, reasoning, and reading comprehension skills. This category also includes job knowledge assessments that assess a person’s technical knowledge in their field—an editing test for a writer, for example. Well-designed assessments for competence can provide valid data to predict a person’s job performance and the likelihood of success in training.

Behavioral Assessments
Behavioral assessments include personality assessments that reveal traits like extraversion versus introversion, conscientiousness, and openness to new experiences. Integrity assessments that assess a person’s honesty, dependability, trustworthiness, reliability, and pro-social behavior also fall into this category, as do structured interviews, situational judgement assessments, and biographical data assessments that ask questions about a person’s background, personal characteristics, and interests. Employers often use behavioral assessments because, when well-designed, they can be good predictors of job performance.

Frank Schmidt, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, cautions that employers should not rely solely on behavioral assessments like personality assessments in making employment decisions because they are the least effective types of assessments in predicting job performance. They should be used instead to supplement information obtained from other sources like cognitive ability assessments, interviews, references, and previous work experiences.

Types of personality assessments include:

  • DiSC
  • The Harrison Assessment
  • The Hogan Personality Inventory
  • The IPIP-NEO
  • The Kiersey Temperament Sorter
  • The Kolbe Index
  • Pymetrics and Knack
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The MBTI is arguably the most widely used personality assessment by employers, which warrants taking a closer look. According to a 2012 article in The Washington Post, the MBTI is used by more than 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges and universities, and 200 U.S. government agencies (Cunningham, 2012). More than 3.5 million assessments are administered each year (Bajic, 2015). It is estimated that more than 60 million people have taken the MBTI since the Educational Testing Service began offering it in 1962 (Cunningham, 2012). Its history, however, dates back to the early 1900s and is based on the work of Carl Jung. The U.S. version consists of 93 questions.

How Organizations Can Correctly Use Assessments for Competence and Behavioral Assessments
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Ben Dattner, founder of New York City-based Dattner Consulting, offers the following tips on how employers can correctly use assessments in their organizations:

  1. Know the law. Assessment tools should be job-related and well validated so they don’t run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
  2. Know the business needs. If using the assessment for hiring purposes, there should be clear, qualitative measures of job performance in place so a statistical correlation can be drawn about how well the assessment predicts performance. Once the business needs have been identified, find an assessment that will accurately evaluate those needs.
  3. Reduce the risk of cheating (which will skew the assessment’s reliability and validity) by making sure all assessments are proctored.
  4. Share assessment results with the test takers. They will appreciate the feedback.

It is also highly recommended that the results are delivered by a professional coach. A good coach will understand the limitations of any behavioral assessment and only use the results to begin the conversation that will lead to a better understanding of the assessment takers actual preferences.

Assessments can be powerful tools that can improve employee turnover, motivation, loyalty, and an organization’s bottom line, but they should be used with caution, expert assistance (e.g., a professional coach), and in conjunction with other tools like interviews and background checks (if used for hiring). Perhaps most importantly, though, to be effective, behavioral assessments must be seen as a tool to reveal preferences and to start a conversation, not to pigeonhole people into categories or buckets. It requires a commitment to resist taking the easy route and, to use Jung’s own term, unfairly assign the “ideal average.”

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